Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Remembering the martyr St. Thomas Becket - Christmas Travel, Visits

Today is the fifth day of Christmas and the liturgical commemoration of St. Thomas Becket.

Becket is famous in our time as a result of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and subsequent adaptations on stage and screen. He is also an example of what is known as "the grace of state": someone named to an office (king, bishop, priest) is given by the Lord graces to live that in a way that might not have been anticipated beforehand.

Thus in the biography that follows, we discover how Thomas Becket's faith gave glimpses of potential for holiness even as these were overcome by other dimensions of his life. But on his choice for the office of Archbishop of Cantebury, for his administrative ability and his relationship with the king, led to his "conversion" first to a life of piety and then onto the path to holiness. Hence the importance of praying for bishops and other leaders who hold office in the church
and in public life to live their vocation as God would have them.

Thomas Becket was born in London, England in 1118. His father was a Norman knight, Gilbert, who had become a prosperous merchant in London; his mother was also Norman, and he had at least two sisters.

Thomas was noted for his piety, his strong devotion to Our Lady, and his generosity to the poor. Richly endowed by nature, he was tall, handsome, strong, and athletic, with dark hair, pale complexion and a prominent nose. His sight and hearing were unusually keen, he had an excellent memory, and he was a gifted speaker and debater.

He enjoyed playing field sports as a boy, and as a young man, his energy, his practical ability, and his initiative exceeded his wisdom and his judgment. He was educated at the Merton Priory in Sussex and at the University of Paris.

When he returned to England at twenty-one, he obtained an appointment as a clerk to the sheriff’s court, where he showed great ability. He was determined to make it on his own in the world now that his parents were both deceased.

After three years, he was taken into the household of Theobald, the Norman monk-archbishop of Canterbury. The young Thomas gradually climbed up the ecclesiastical ladder of success via his charm, his generosity and his adaptability. He was ambitious, and refused no opportunity for advancement. He enjoyed having a "good time", but at all times his life was marked by purity and holiness. The archbishop assigned him the post of archdeacon, and, at the age of thirty-six, he was recommended by Theobald to the young King Henry as chancellor.

Henry II was a man of great ability and vigor with a genius for both leadership and organization; however, he was also self-willed, arrogant, demanding, and passionate. He was power-driven and was obsessed with obtaining complete control over every power in his kingdom. As his chancellor, Thomas had a personal fondness for Henry and devoted all his efforts to serve and please the young king.

Thomas was very well paid for his work and spent his earnings lavishly on entertainment, luxurious clothing, extravagant meals, and on hunting. He never failed to work hard and act prudently on behalf of the king's interests. There is evidence that during this time he was dissatisfied with himself and his "worldly life".

In 1163, Theobald died, and the king secured the election of his friend, Thomas, as archbishop, confident that he would serve all his interests and meet all his demands. Thomas was reluctant to accept the office, and warned Henry that he might regret his decision. Eventually, he did agree to accept the office and when he did, something unusual happened. Thomas suddenly became an austere and very spiritual man, devoting himself wholly to the interests of the Church. He made it clear that he was now the faithful servant of the Holy Father.

A short time later, the inevitable clash with the king occurred. Henry reasserted all the rights of the monarchy, which had been claimed and exercised fifty years earlier. Since that time, however, the papacy had established the claim of the church to control matters such as the trial of clerics and the excommunication of offenders, and had asserted its right to hear appeals and decide all cases.

The archbishop and his king were in constant conflict, and affairs reached a crisis when the king demanded that Thomas agree to the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164). This document stated that all the customs of the past were now contrary to both the law of the Church and the practice of the papacy.

Thomas hesitated, and for a moment gave way, thus breaking the solidarity of the bishops in their resistance. Then, at a council at Northampton in 1164 he reasserted his opposition and in face of threats of death or imprisonment, he escaped at night and crossed to France to seek the pope.

As archbishop, Thomas was in exile in France for the next six years, while he and the king and Pope Alexander III attempted to settle the controversy and restore peace to the church in England. Meanwhile Thomas, at the abbey of Pontigny and elsewhere, devoted himself to prayer and penance in what may be called a 'second conversion' from piety to sanctity.

When an uneasy peace was established in 1169, Thomas returned in triumph to Canterbury. Almost immediately, the King enraged by the archbishop's refusal to withdraw some censures, let words slip out that were taken to be a command to kill the archbishop as a traitor.

On December 29th, 1170, four knights from the court of King Henry II burst into Canterbury Cathedral as the Archbishop was on his way to Vespers. Just inside the cloister door, they murdered Thomas Becket, whose defense of the rights of the Church had angered the King. His last words were: 'I accept death for the name of Jesus and for the Church.'

The murder shocked the conscience of all Europe; miracles were announced immediately; the archbishop was canonized as a martyr by Alexander III in 1173; the king did public penance at his tomb, and much of what St Thomas had worked for all his life was accomplished by his death. Within three years, Thomas was canonized, and the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury has become one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims from all over the world.

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Departing Ottawa on Sunday afternoon, I travelled with Father Vernon Boyd to the Jesuit Novitiate in Montreal where we have received most hospitably by Father Joseph Mroz, who is holding the fort while the novices and other staff visit with family.

Only difficulty is, after shooting a few shots of the ice-laden trees near Good Shepherd church and rectory, I have either lost or mislaid my camera (in the rectory), so there are no photographs of Sunday evening or yesterday's family visits.

There's also a photographic blank of my meetings yesterday with two Ottawa-incardinated priests now living in retirement in the greater Montreal area.

The first was Abbe Hubert Laurin, who will be 80 next month and resides at the headquarters of the Pretres des Missions Etrangeres in Pont-Viau, Laval. Their lovely chapel, where Abbe Laurin was ordained in 1956 is dedicated to the Society's patron, St. Francis Xavier.

The other priest is an "honorary Oblate" (during his teaching years he resided at Deschatelets Residence on Ottawa,s Main Street), Mgr Roger Quesnel.

Now in past 83, he resides at the Oblate Infirmary and residence at Richelieu, QC at the extremity of Montreal's south shore. During his latter years, he had been interviewing persons who knew Georges and Pauline Vanier concerning their exemplary Catholic life in the possibility that one day their cause for canonization could be presented to the Holy See, a project still in course.

Mgr guided me around the residence, which has just welcomed some thirty Jesuit priests and brothers in need of nursing care, some of whom I was able to greet. From every report, Oblates and Jesuits are getting on wonferfully (as one would hope and expect).

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At Montreal's downtown Irish-built church, I celebrated the feast of the Holy Innocents with a very small congregation (Monday was a public holiday so many of the downtown workers who come to the 5:15PM daily Mass at St. Patrick's Basilica).

Attached are a couple of web-available photos that offer a sense of the majesty of this beautiful church (one of four monor basilicas in Montreal). Afterwards, supper followed in Montreal's nearby Chinatown (which boasts an English-language Catholic Mission) at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

1 comment:

  1. His Grace and Father Boyd were the best of guests, not complaining at the lack of heat in the house, or the fact that we ate leftovers for 5 of the 6 meals of their stay (the 6th being the memorable downtown buffet). And they slept in until at least 8 am, leaving their host the luxury of sleeping in late as well.